Vicious Rooster is the music project of singer-songwriter, musician and producer Juan Abella. Born and raised in Argentina, Juan began learning to play guitar at the age of ten, and played in bands and wrote songs while in high school. In college, he juggled his business studies with guitar lessons and playing in bands, then after graduation he temporarily set aside his music dreams to focus on his business career and long-term relationship. After the relationship ended, and experiencing stress over some family issues, he made the decision to quit his job and pursue his dream of becoming a musician. He adopted the moniker Vicious Rooster, and relocated to Los Angeles in 2016 to study music business at the renowned Musicians Institute in Hollywood.
Drawing inspiration from such bands as The Beatles, The Black Crowes, Guns’n’Roses and Alice in Chains, among others, Vicious Rooster melds elements of classic rock with Southern rock, folk and a bit of grunge to create his own unique style. He writes, sings and produces his songs, and plays guitar and harmonica. Using songs he’d previously written as well as new compositions, he released his excellent debut album The Darkest Light in 2017. It’s an ambitious and impressive work, featuring 12 tracks and running over an hour in length. Nine of the songs are more than five minutes long! Many of the song lyrics address moments where he felt lost during the transition from his past life and what became his present one.
After a three year long hiatus, he returned in August with his latest single “The Moon is Dancing“, a dark and powerful song with roots firmly planted in Southern rock. The song opens with a melancholy harmonica riff accompanied by a gently strummed guitar, evoking images of the Old West. As the song progresses, Vicious Rooster adds layers of chiming, gnarly and wobbly distorted guitars, along with heavier percussion, all of which build to a thrilling crescendo. He has an arresting and resonant singing voice, and his heartfelt vocals rise along with the intensifying music to impassioned screams that bring goosebumps.
The lyrics speak to feeling overwhelmed by worries, anxiety and loneliness: “The tension’s rising / My mind is going insane / And my defenses slowly crumble down / The moon is dancing / My thoughts are rolling to nowhere bound“; and searching for peace of mind and a sense of purpose in life: “I hope to find some peace along the way / I’m gonna rest my soul / I’m gonna keep on living life like there is somewhere I belong.” It’s a fantastic song.
To learn more about Vicious Rooster, check out his website
Polyhymns is an experimental/alternative folk act based in Sheffield, England, having one of the more uniquely eclectic sounds of any artists I’ve heard in a while. Formed a year ago, the trio consist of Andrew Bolam, Gavin Harris and Sam Smith, all of whom previously worked together in folktronica group Little Glitches. With their shared love for such disparate artists as Burt Bacharach and Aphex Twin, they meld experimental electronic elements with psychedelia and folk to create exquisite music that transcends genres and demands our attention.
This past April, they released their debut single “Down with the Kids”, a lovely and poignant folk-pop song about parenthood and isolation in the digital age. They followed in July with the more experimental and trippy “How Ya Doin'”, and now return with their debut four-track EP Hybrid Sunday, which drops today, September 4th. The EP is also being released as a Limited Edition 10” Lathe Cut Vinyl with Sheffield’s Do It Thissen Record Label.
The EP’s title was inspired by the fact that the band writes and records their music on Sunday mornings in Sheffield’s Hybrid 3 Studio. Because the guys found they were often competing with noise from other bands rehearsing and recording in the studio’s other room, they decided Sunday mornings were the best time to ensure the peace and quiet necessary for optimum recording of their own music. During the recording of Hybrid Sunday, they also received guidance from local electronic music wizard Rob Gordon (founder of Warp Records), who lent them his Korg synthesiser and mastered the EP.
The first track “JK” is a pleasing alt-folk tune, opening with strummed acoustic guitar and gentle handclaps. Soon, an insistent drumbeat enters along with vocals as the music rises with a flourish of synths and wildly crashing cymbals, giving the song a greater sense of urgency. I’m not certain as to the meaning of the lyrics “Again and again I try / Worry how far the others are / Dragging my heels again / Means nothing to me“, but the band states they celebrate diversity in learning.
Polyhymns goes off into a completely different direction with “Unboxers“, a languid atmospheric track lasting nearly six minutes. Over a throbbing dub bass-driven groove, the guys layer spacey industrial synths, crisp percussion and reverb-soaked guitar to create a dreamy, ethereal soundscape. Their soaring vocal harmonies in the first half of the track are sublime.
The enchanting “Toes” is probably my favorite track, with its beautiful skittering synths, razor-sharp percussion, deep bass and those intriguing bleep sounds. And once again, we’re treated to the guys’ soothing vocal croons: “If you try so hard you can get so far off a memory. If you think you’ve failed, then start it again, let’s begin.” The final track “Glyn” is a captivating instrumental composition highlighted by a fantastic psychedelic organ riff. The song starts off with a funky bass loop and crisp hi-hat beats that lend a jazzy vibe, but once the organ enters the proceedings, the song really takes off into the sonic stratosphere.
Hybrid Sunday is an amazing little EP, with four totally unique tracks that couldn’t sound more different from each other. I also find the song titles, which seem to have little to do with the subject matter, quite interesting. I’m really impressed by the creativity and talent of these three musicians, and cannot wait to hear what they come up with next!
Oceanography is the music project of Oakland, California-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Brian Kelly. I recently learned about him when he followed me on Twitter and reached out to me about his music, which I liked at first listen. Drawing from an eclectic mix of styles and genres such as alternative rock, garage, rock’n’roll, punk, folk and pop, and expressed though exquisite guitar work, intelligent lyrics and arresting, emotion-packed vocals that remind me at times of Bono, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows or Robert Smith of The Cure, Oceanography creates melodically beautiful and incredibly compelling songs. Why he’s not more well-known is a mystery to me, as he’s really good!
He released two EPs, the first in 2011 simply titled EP1, followed a year later by the excellent Parachutes of Plenty, receiving critical acclaim from numerous Bay Area music critics. Then, after a seven-year hiatus, he dropped his brilliant debut album Collier Canyon in 2019. Named after a winding road in the hills outside of Livermore, California, a small city east of Oakland where Kelly grew up, he was inspired to write the album after some life-changing events. He explains: “I had planned on moving to LA, but then everything took a turn for the worse. First I was laid off from my job, then my girlfriend (and bandmate) broke up with me. So instead, in my mid-30s, I moved back in with my mom. It was a depressing situation. When I needed to clear my head, I’d take a drive in the hills outside of town.”
For the production and recording of Collier Canyon, Oceanography consisted of Kelly on guitars, bass, synth and vocals, Brock Bowers on drums, and Scott Barwick on keyboards. The album was mixed by Peter Labberton and mastered by Mike Wells. Filled with melancholy but lovely songs about loss and a nostalgia for the past, the album is an outstanding work, and I highly recommend my readers check it out on one of the music streaming sites listed below.
One of the singles Kelly released from the album is “Rainbow Records”, a bittersweet song about missing someone with whom you once had a romantic relationship, but still haven’t gotten over. Back in the days when cassette tapes were popular, many of us would record songs we liked from the radio onto mix tapes we’d make on our portable tape recorders. With this in mind as he thinks back on his own breakup, Kelly wistfully laments: “I’m thinking of you now / I can’t put out the torch, it has to burn out on it’s own / So I pull out your old Maxell tapes and play some radio songs.” He recalls happier times, while quickly acknowledging they’re now gone forever with the passage of time: “I remember you in ’84 knocking it around to ‘Purple Rain’ in the record store / Playing songs we can’t afford, now the tipping point has tipped and our fountain of youth has turned to shit.“
Musically, “Rainbow Records” has a pleasing folk-rock vibe, but with a rather sorrowful undercurrent that makes for a surprisingly impactful track. Kelly’s guitar work is superb, starting off with a beautifully strummed acoustic guitar, over which he layers jangly electric guitar notes along with a humming bass line. Bowers beats the toe-tapping rhythm on drums while Barwick does a fine job with his subtle keyboards. Kelly’s fervent vocals have a strong vulnerability that nicely convey his feelings of heartache and longing expressed in the lyrics.
The terrific video he produced for the song shows a parade of old mix tapes, behind which is an ever-changing background of both real and surreal images, interspersed with footage of Kelly singing the song and playing his guitar.
DENSE is a remarkably talented young psychedelic garage rock band from Leeds, England I’ve been following pretty much since their beginnings nearly four years ago. As their name suggests, they combine thick, fuzz-coated grooves with intricate, often explosive riffs and complex melodies to create music that’s exhilarating and intense. To best describe their distinctive sound, I’ve come up with the phrase ‘industrial surf-metal psychedelic garage rock’. Making this incredible and innovative music are Charlie Fossick (Guitar/Vocals), Dylan Metcalf (Bass) and Sam Heffer (Drums), three intelligent guys who take their music seriously, yet are still fully in touch with their playful side.
A favorite of this blog, I’ve featured DENSE numerous times over the past three and a half years, most recently last December when I reviewed their dark and gritty single “Fever Dream” (you can read some of my previous reviews by clicking on the links under ‘Related’ at the end of this post). Now the guys return with their debut EP Abjection, featuring four combustible little sticks of dynamite packed into 14 explosive minutes. The guys have gained a reputation for their electrifying live performances, and in the creation of the EP, they wanted to capture that energy and translate it into their songs. Abjection was written and recorded by DENSE, produced and mixed by Adam Bairstow, and mastered by James Grover.
It’s been gratifying to follow these guys on their musical journey, and as they’ve matured, so too has their sound, songwriting and performance, with each release sounding better and better. Abjection is their best work yet, with the band further experimenting with progressive rock elements. In a recent interview with British webzine DRAB, the band explained “The instrumentals are incidentally written to sort of be ‘progressive’ with changing moods and vibes through each song to almost tell their own story. To pair with this, Charlie usually writes taking influence from writers such as H.P. Lovecraft (i.e. cramming a horror story into a single song), and this led to us landing on the main theme of the EP being a small collection of songs that are all essentially short stories about different forms of suffering, hence the title of the EP. Looking back on that, it makes us come across a lot more bleak and depressing than we like to think we are as people!“
Opening track “Calcium” really showcases how well the three guys play as a tight unit, their respective instruments in perfect sync as they deliver a thunderous wall of psychedelic sound. Starting with Dylan’s deep, pulse-pounding bass line that serves as the song’s rapidly beating heart, Charlie layers scorching reverb-soaked riffs that rip through the airwaves while Sam aggressively smashes his drum kit. I can’t make out all the lyrics Charlie’s singing, but he screams with a ferocity that’s downright chilling. A little more than halfway through the song, we hear what sounds like jets flying as Sam starts shattering his drums with crushing beats that echo off the walls. At 2:45, Charlie lets loose with a savage volley of raging distortion, while Dylan’s relentless throbbing bass can be both heard and felt. It’s an exhilarating ride from start to finish.
As it’s title suggests, “Dread” is a dark and ominous track, with a heavy start-stop beat driven by a menacing bass line. Two thirds into the song, Charlie blows us away with an explosion of screaming distortion while Sam smashes his drums to bits. Charlie wails the lyrics that speak of depression and hopelessness: “Dark shadows surround me. So patient. So worthless. So nothing.” In that DRAB interview, he commented on his vocals: “I think as far as my vocal tone on the EP goes, I was trying to be more confident in my voice and not hide too much behind walls of reverb and delay which is a lot more comfortable for me. I never think of myself as a ‘singer’ or anyone of any significant talent vocal/lyric-wise so I wasn’t very comfortable in having my words sound clear and at the forefront. This time around I’ve decided to be a bit more vulnerable with what I wrote and how I’m performing it.”
“Electric Chair” has a rousing punk rock vibe, with gnarly reverb-soaked guitars that border on surf at times. As always, Dylan and Sam blast out a hard-driving rhythm with their intricate heavy bass line and pummeling drum beats.
The final track “Cleanse/Repair” is a reworking of their song “Irreversible Knot” that they’d previously recorded a few years ago. After changing a few lyrics and elements that make it a sharper and more polished-sounding track, they felt it needed a new name. The song begins with Dylan’s deeply-strummed bass, then we’re hit by a thunderous barrage of fuzzy distorted guitars and wildly crashing cymbals. Charlie’s echoed vocals go from sultry drones to savage wails, while he shreds his guitar nearly to bits. Halfway through the track, things calm down so that we hear only Dylan’s bass, then with a scream from Charlie, a cacophony of reverb-soaked distortion comes crashing back like a rogue wave. A second lull occurs three quarters of the way through, with a final return of tumultuous discordant musical mayhem closing out this monumental track.
All three members of DENSE are supremely talented guys who continue to blow me away with their incredible musicianship. Charlie’s guitar work is exceptional, and I think Dylan is one of the finest bassists around today. And Sam’s a literal beast on the drums. Abjection is a fantastic little EP that makes quite an impact in its 14 minute run time, and if you like music that’s complex, thrilling and dark, you will enjoy it as much as I do.
Since forming a year ago from the breakup of the bands Saint Apache and Katalina Kicks, Amongst Liars have become one of the most exciting indie acts on the British rock music scene today. Incorporating a dynamic mix of alternative rock, grunge and punk, they play a melodic and fierce style of aggressive hard rock that’s earned them a loyal and passionate following, me included. Last February, they released their spectacular debut single “Over and Over”, then followed in May with their appropriately-titled beast of a track “Wolf Machine”. (You can read my reviews by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of his post.) Now they return with their third single “Burn the Vision“, an explosive banger which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week.
Based in the Brighton/Eastbourne area along the southern English coast, Amongst Liars consists of four highly accomplished musicians Ian George (lead vocals, guitar), Leo Burdett (guitar, backing vocals), Ross Towner (bass, backing vocals) and Adam Oarton (drums). While they don’t consider themselves a ‘political band’, they certainly don’t shy away from expressing their opinions and anxieties about what’s happening in the world. Band vocalist Ian George explains. “We’re not preaching at anyone or trying to change the world. We’re just saying these are the things that affect and concern us.”
In response to the ongoing political divisiveness over the past few years, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 global pandemic, a number of artists and bands have been inspired to write songs addressing those thorny issues, and Amongst Liars have been among the most outspoken. On their previous single “Wolf Machine”, Amongst Liars called out inept and ineffectual governments led by power hungry politicians. “Burn the Vision” shines a spotlight on those who have sought to profit from the misfortune of others by distorting the media with fake news to spread their own narratives and lies. The band explains: “‘Burn the Vision’ is basically about all things messed up in the world at the moment – people acting for personal gain and media distortion – no matter what side of the spectrum you are on. We all burn a vision in our heads through consumption of targeted fake news.”
Well, the guys unleash their arsenal of sonic weaponry to deliver a furious onslaught of thunderous riffs and crushing rhythms befitting the searing lyrics. Amongst Liars are all great musicians, adept at pushing their respective instruments to the limit to create an explosive wall of sound, and here they excel quite nicely. Working in tandem as a force to be reckoned with, Leo and Ian shred the airwaves with jagged riffs and fuzz-coated distortion, while Ross and Adam drive the powerful rhythm forward with an intense bass line and pummeling drumbeats. It’s a thrilling, pulse-pounding ride from start to finish!
Ian summons his inner beast on vocals, nearly spitting the lyrics as he rails against a despicable leader I assume to mean Donald Trump, continuously feeding us lies: “We bow to the lies of a president / We fall to the word of the free / All down to the voice of a millionaire / That’s not so clear to see.” Ian continues with his verbal assault, fervently pleading for people to stop believing the lies and start thinking for themselves: “Burn the Vision, don’t turn / Let us decide, all for the right, stop all the lies / Not for the memory / Burn the Vision.” Regular readers of my blog know I detest President Trump, so these lyrics strongly resonate with me.
With the assistance of Josh R Lewis and Robert Ruardy, the guys have produced a powerful video to bring the song to life. “We wanted a strong visual for this, so the video plays on this idea and is tongue in cheek, featuring a man stuffing himself with junk food and fake news – the idea that people become pariahs of their own consumption.” The video shows the aforementioned couch potato sitting in a darkened room, gorging on food and watching TV while the band performs the song nearby. Ian is also shown portraying a TV news anchorman and reporter. No matter how hard he tries, the man is unable to turn off his TV or change the channel, indicating that he’s become a prisoner of both the TV and fake news.
Watch this brilliant video:
Like for all their singles, the terrific surreal artwork for “Burn the Vision” was created by the inventive artist Pierre Engelbrecht.
Moonlight Broadcast is an alternative rock band hailing from beautiful Melbourne, Australia. Influenced by such greats as Crowded House, The National and Death Cab for Cutie, they write songs with memorable guitar-driven melodies and poignant lyrics about (in their own words) “the winding, bumpy road we’re all travelling on.” The band is comprised of Cameron (lead vocals), Adi (guitar), Craig (bass, backing vocals) and Ash (drums & mojo). They released their excellent debut EP A Cynic’s Guide to Dying Happy in February 2018 (you can read my review here), and after a two and a half year break, the guys are back at last with a terrific new single “Amoebas in Glass Houses“.
The song has a bouncy melody and lively mix of jangly guitars, humming bass and punchy drumbeats, creating a pleasing, upbeat vibe that contrasts with the rather depressing and brutally honest lyrics. Cameron says the song is basically about procrastination and living in a prison of one’s own making, not moving forward or achieving anything. The lyrics speak to turning inward and wanting to hide away from the world and just be left alone, yet something’s missing and you’re still feeling restless and unhappy as outside pressures build: “I’m floating around the lounge room, red-eyed and my cock in my hand / another Friday night and the walls are closing in / Cracks creeping up my window / I can’t stay here and I can’t go.”
Feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness are further compounded by seeing a beautiful and unattainable young starlett on TV: “Her physical beauty makes me want to curl up and die where I sit.” All these negative feelings have him pondering suicide as the only possible way out, though he doesn’t really want that: “There’s a tree I can see from my lounge room / limbs spread like an invitation late on Friday night and I probably need a friend.“
“Amoebas in Glass Houses” is a great song, and I’m so glad Moonlight Broadcast have graced our ears with new music.
Revolution Rabbit Deluxe (RRD) is an indie alt-rock rock band hailing from south Wales. Their innovative and sometimes unorthodox music style and sound draw from Brit-rock, pop and punk influences, with meaningful lyrics tackling topical issues ranging from politics, culture and environmental justice to mental health. RRD started out as a solo project for founder and guitarist Rev Rab, but gradually evolved into a four-piece band that now includes Rev Rab on guitar and lead vocals, Dan on guitar and backing vocals, and Ben on bass and backing vocals. Their drummer Nick, who played drums on their latest album, recently left the band.
With two previous albums under their belt – Tales From Armageddonsville and Swipe Left (you can read my reviews by clicking on the Related links at the bottom of this page) – RRD is back with their third album Myths and Fables. Like their previous albums, Myths and Fables is a concept album of sorts, in that its overall theme addresses politics, the media, and societal myths like celebrity and fame that people blindly accept as truths. It also has a darker and edgier feel, both lyrically and vocally, with Rev Rab sounding angrier and more frustrated than ever.
The album kicks off with “Generation Voyeur”, a song about the addictive allure of social media, specifically a person who documents everything from what they last ate, to their most intimate personal dramas and trauma. But in a broader sense, it speaks to the voyeuristic nature of society and our attraction for watching a personal train wreck: “There’s a time and a place and a space for disgrace. And then we took a look. He fell down from the ledge as we pushed from the edge. And then we took a look. She cried out to above as she died without love. And then we took a look.” The strong pulsating beat is overlain with spooky psychedelic industrial synths and rolling riffs of gnarly guitars, giving the track an almost sinister vibe.
On “Killswitch”, RRD decries the cannibalistic profiteering by corporations in monetizing and selling our personal information: “Turning the on switch off / They tell you it’s progress, it’s progress baby / Stealing your life away / They tell you it’s progress, it’s progress baby. They’ll thrill you, betray you, then they’ll bill you / It’s big business now.” I like the song’s urgent chugging psychedelic groove and mix of sharp chiming guitars and grimy distorted riffs, along with the shrill sounds of what seem to be steel train wheels breaking on a track.
The title track “Myths and Fables” sees RRD railing about tired and ubiquitous old saws and platitudes people have repeated for years like “it’s better to have love and lost” or “all roads lead to Rome”, and how they’re just meaningless bullshit that never result in action: “It’s time for truth, open eyes, no secret lies / It’s time to choose, we’re outa time / The planet burns and we choose lies.” And on “Channel 5” he laments about the depressing effects of TV news: “And you’re watching it live, on channel five / You’re taking me down, taking me down down down / I don’t want to drown.“
One of my favorite tracks is “Pretty Escarpment”, with it’s bouncy yet melancholy opening piano riff and ensuing galloping rhythms. The lyrics speak of a past love who wasn’t a good match, but whose memory still haunts you: “Too many memories in your shade / Too many echoes from your walls / Do I get up and walk away or stand at the edge and plunge into the pretty ravine that held my eyes / The pretty escarpment built from lies...” “Superstar” is a cheeky take down of superstar celebrities, with their superficial and often excessive lifestyles: “You drive a big fast car / You travel ‘round with your harem of young blondes / You say they keep you young / Any younger you’ll reenter your mother’s womb.”
“Battle Hymn (Of the New Republic)” seems to be an attack on the nationalistic attitudes that resulted in Brexit and the election of leaders like Boris Johnson and Trump. Lets take care of ourselves and screw everyone else. “The track’s jaunty melody contrasts with the biting lyrics “Tell me you feel safe in this land of hope and Tory / Will anybody stand or take the cheque and plead the fifth / We excuse ourselves, denying our responsibility / Taking all we can, we screw the system / It’s do or be done or be damned.”
This theme continues on “TV Junkies”, with RRD calling out politicians and the media for feeding us an endless stream of fear and lies to keep society divided and angry, not to mention upping their ratings: “In darkened rooms throughout the land TV junkies get sky high / They throw us targets for our hate / They fan the flames and toy with fate.” I think we can all identify with the powerful sentiments expressed in this song, regardless of our political persuasion.
While I don’t think Myths and Fables is quite as strong an album as Tales From Armageddonsville or Swipe Left, it’s still a solid work filled with songs featuring timely and compelling lyrics, along with some terrific instrumentals.
Though many music writers and critics believe The Pretenders debut album Pretenders is their best work (in 2013 Rolling Stone Magazine named it the 13th best debut album of all time), I prefer their third album Learning to Crawl on the strength of its outstanding tracks like “Back on the Chain Gang”, “Middle of the Road”, “Show Me”, “Time the Avenger” and “My City Was Gone”. While I’d liked their 1980 breakthrough hit “Brass in Pocket” well enough, it was the bittersweet “Back on the Chain Gang”, with its jangly guitars, haunting lyrics, Chrissie Hynde’s distinctive lilting vocals, and the chain-gang chant in the chorus that really caught my attention. To this day, the song remains one of my favorites of the 1980s.
Learning to Crawl was literally a phoenix rising from the ashes, as it was recorded in the wake of upheaval and tragedy for the band and, as such, many of its songs deal with various aspects of loss. In June 1982, after they finished touring in support of their commercially and critically disappointing second album Pretenders II, Hynde and fellow band members guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and drummer Martin Chambers fired bassist Pete Farndon over his diminishing performance resulting from his escalating heroin abuse. Two days later, Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure brought on by his own cocaine abuse. (Sadly, Farndon would die 10 months later by drowning in a bathtub after passing out from a heroin binge.)
Hynde and Chambers decided to soldier on in grief. In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Hynde said, “What else were we going to do? Stay at home and be miserable, or go into the studio and do what we dig and be miserable?” A month after Honeyman-Scott’s death, Hynde hired Big Country bassist Tony Butler and Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner, along with Robbie McIntosh (who would go on to become the band’s lead guitarist) to record a new single “Back on the Chain Gang” along with its B-side “My City Was Gone” (with its now iconic thumping bass groove that the execrable Rush Limbaugh later adopted as the theme for his radio show).
The single was released that September, and would become The Pretenders’ highest-charting single in the U.S. (“Brass in Pocket” is their highest-charting single in the UK.) Hynde wrote “Back on the Chain Gang” as a tribute to Honeyman-Scott and dedicated it to him. The song was also written during her strained on-and-off relationship with Kinks front man Ray Davies, and recorded when she was three months pregnant with their daughter. They split up for good six months later.
Through the rest of 1982 and into 1983, in between having and raising a baby and mourning Farndon (who died in April 1983), Hynde would periodically return to the studio with Chambers, new guitarist Robbie McIntosh and new bassist Malcolm Foster to record songs for an album she would name after her baby daughter Natalie’s first attempts to become mobile. In a sense, Learning to Crawl could also be a metaphor for The Pretenders regaining their footing as a band. The album was finally released in January 1984, receiving unanimously positive reviews. With regard to the notion that the album’s songs are mostly about loss, in that 1984 Rolling Stone interview Hynde was dismissive, saying, “It’s just a collection of 10 measly songs. It’s not a real important deal. I hate this sort of romantic or sentimental take people have on it—you know, the tragic demise, the reawakening. It wasn’t like that at all. I even regret naming the album ‘Learning To Crawl’, because it just sounds pathetic. I mean, I’m not sentimental.”
Be that as it may, many tracks do speak to a sense of loss, whether it be missing a loved one on “2000 Miles”, happier times on “Back on the Chain Gang”: “I found a picture of you / Those were the happiest days of my life.”, the “pretty countryside” surrounding her childhood home of Akron, Ohio ruined by urban sprawl and over-development on “My City Was Gone”, or one’s dignity and reputation in the wake of an adulterous affair on “Time the Avenger”: “Nobody’s permanent / Everything’s on loan here / Even your wife and kids / Could be gone next year”.
The band’s strong and incredibly tight musicianship is nicely showcased on several tracks. One of my favorites is the rousing album opener “Middle of the Road”, with its aggressive driving beat and stellar guitar work. Highlights for me are Chambers’ blasting drumbeats, McIntosh’s dazzling guitar solo in the bridge, and Hynde’s angry growl as she launches into her blazing harmonica solo toward the end. It’s such a great song, and I never understood why it wasn’t a bigger hit (it peaked at only #19 on the Billboard Hot 100).
Another favorite is the stunning “Show Me”, a hopeful plea for love and humanity as an antidote for mankind’s inherent tendencies for conflict: “Welcome to the human race, with its wars, disease and brutality / You with your innocence and grace restore some pride and dignity to a world in decline.” The shimmery chiming and jangly guitars are gorgeous, and I love the intricate music touches such as the spacey little ascending guitar chord that plays when Hynde sings “Welcome here from outer space”.
“Time the Avenger” starts off with an infectious head-bopping beat, throbbing bassline and simple guitar riff, then gradually builds into a storm of Hynde’s and McIntosh’s intertwining riffs that’s downright exhilarating. The band seems to give a nod to Johnny Cash on “Thumbelina”, a lively rocker with a chugging train-style rhythm beautifully expressing the cross-country journey of a mother and her child as they head toward a new beginning.
One of the earliest songs recorded for the album was the beautiful cover of the Persuaders’ hit “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”, in which guitar was played by Billy Bremner, bass by Andrew Bodnar and piano by Paul Carrack (formerly of Squeeze, Ace and Roxy Music). “Watching the Clothes” is not a particularly strong track, though I do like its frantic punk rock vibe. The lyrics speak to the boredom of dealing with chores, but also to toiling in the service sector at a dead-end job: “I’ve been kissing ass / Trying to keep it clean / So that the middle class has a clean routine.”
In the years following the release of Learning to Crawl, The Pretenders would unfortunately continue to experience more internal upheaval and numerous changes in lineup. From what I can tell, some of it seems to stem from Hynde’s perfectionism and mercurial nature. Soon after recording sessions began for their next album Get Close, she declared that Chambers was no longer playing well and dismissed him. Discouraged at the loss of his bandmate, Foster then quit, leaving Hynde and McIntosh to record the rest of the album in New York and Stockholm with assorted session musicians. Despite all the upheaval, the Pretenders are still going strong in 2020, and in July dropped their 11th album Hate For Sale, which is actually pretty good.
Ever since first hearing their stunning and critically-acclaimed debut EP Who’s Gonna Save Us Now in early 2017, I’ve been head over heels in love with the music of Sydney, Australia-based dream rock band Crystal Cities. With a sound they describe as “like Death Cab For Cutie had a War On Drugs with The Beatles” – all three bands I love – it’s no wonder I would love their beautiful music too. The supremely talented trio consists of Geoff Rana (vocals, guitars, keyboard), Jared King (bass, backing vocals) and Daniel Conte (drums, percussion).
In 2019, the guys had the opportunity to record their gorgeous debut album Under the Cold Light of the Moon at the famed Abbey Road Studios. The album featured eight stellar dream rock gems, most with lush orchestral arrangements and instrumentation. The dramatic title track “Under the Cold Light of the Moon” was inspired by the story of young North Korean girl Yeonmi Park. who bravely escaped North Korea in search of freedom. I reviewed the song, and loved it so much that it went to #1 on my Weekly Top 30, and ranked #10 on my Top 100 Songs of 2019 list. The album helped further cement their reputation as an outstanding group of exceptional songwriters and musicians. In recent weeks, they’ve posted back stories with lyrics for each of the album’s tracks on their Instagram page.
Now, Crystal Cities return with their latest single “Don’t Speak Too Soon“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week. The song, which drops today, August 21st, is the lead single from their forthcoming second album Hold Me Close Hold Me Tight. Both single and album see the band taking a different approach this time around, foregoing the fancy studio and producer and instead choosing to produce the album themselves.
With that in mind, at the beginning of this year, lead singer/guitarist and primary songwriter Geoff Rana decided to learn all the ins and outs of recording. With the help of free educational resources such as YouTube, he began putting his new-found knowledge to work as he tracked “Don’t Speak Too Soon” at his house in Sydney. It was definitely a trial and error experience, and the added responsibility and steep learning curve nearly overwhelmed him. “‘Don’t Speak Too Soon’ is my first attempt at being an engineer and producer. It was a lot more involved than just showing up to the studio to record my parts! I think more hours were spent reading and watching tutorials than actually recording. One of the biggest mental and technical hurdles I had to overcome was losing all my vocal takes and having to re-record them all over again.”
Well, I’d say that Rana did a masterful job, as “Don’t Speak Too Soon” turned out splendid. With the help of renowned L.A.-based mix engineer Paul Lani (David Bowie, Prince), the band has produced another winning single that retains their signature dream rock elements while delivering a more hard-hitting and edgier vibe. The frantic, guitar-driven melody is downright electrifying, and I think it’s the most exciting song Crystal Cities has done yet. Rana sets the airwaves ablaze with blistering riffs of jangly and gnarly guitars. I always thought he was a great guitarist, but here he blows me away with the sheer ferocity of his performance.
Jared King and Daniel Conte keep the powerful rhythm rampaging forward with their hard-driving bassline and smashing drumbeats. I especially love how Conte pounds out a single thumping blow to his drums at various breakpoints in the song to great effect. Then there’s Rana’s hauntingly beautiful vocals that are another highlight for me, as I love his singing voice. With a sense of sad resignation, he passionately laments that perhaps he overplayed his hand in love: “And it burns my eyes down through the bone. Why did I listen to love? Did I speak now too soon?“
I’ve loved every single one of Crystal Cities’ songs, and happily add “Don’t Speak Too Soon” to the list. Spectacular job guys!
The cool vintage-looking lyric video was produced by bassist Jared King.
Benjamin Belinksa is an earnest and thoughtful young singer-songwriter and musician based in Newcastle, England. Born in Stoke-On-Trent to Welsh and Polish parents, Benjamin moved to Newcastle when he was 17, but soon thereafter spent time in Glasgow, Berlin, and then Paris, working at a series of menial jobs while also writing music as time permitted. After meeting fellow musician E.A.R in Paris, the two formed the band Paris, Texas, and released two albums with cult producer Kramer (Low, Will Oldham, Daniel Johnston). Eventually, they moved back to Newcastle together, where Benjamin suffered two serious setbacks: First, while rushing to catch a connecting train in York station, he left behind a suitcase containing most of his early songs, which he never recovered. Then, months later, he was viciously assaulted in a random attack by four guys in broad daylight as he was walking home from work, suffering injuries to his eye and throat that landed him in a hospital.
It was during his recovery period that he decided to stop drifting once and for all, and set down roots in Newcastle. He also got the impetus to write songs for what would become his debut solo album Lost Illusions, set for release on August 28. Thinking back on his years of drifting, and how it became an inspiration for the album, he told Ali Welford in an interview for NARC. Magazine: “Drifting is not a bad thing – it allows you to let go of many illusions, but still, they are very attractive. I wanted to grab hold of one again – namely, that I am the master of my own direction. The title ‘Lost Illusions’ is a reference to the childish disappointment that we all go through when we discover that the world is just a lot of silliness. But despite this, it only has one theme – the extraordinary sadness and wretchedness of human life, and my amazement at the fact that this wretched life can nevertheless be so beautiful and precious.”
On July 31st, Benjamin released “Young in Baltimore“, the lead single from the album. Like all the tracks on Lost Illusions, the song was recorded by Benjamin with a back-up band, and mixed and mastered at Soup Studio in London by Giles Barrett and Simon Trought. It’s a charming dream pop track, with a sunny, retro vibe that calls to mind some of the great soft rock and synth pop songs of the 1980s. The song has a lovely, upbeat melody, with a lively toe-tapping beat overlain by chiming synths and warm guitar notes. It all creates an enchanting soundscape that serves as a pleasing backdrop for Benjamin’s gentle, heartfelt vocals as he sings the bittersweet lyrics about a woman contemplating love’s regrets: “When you were young and dumb, he promised to make you his wife. Natural, and he’s cold, you say you’ve wasted your life.” The song also strikes a particular chord with me, as I grew up in San Jose, California, which is mentioned in the lyrics: “Was the winter in San Jose, yeah, the heart attack by the bay? What will you do, your past is blue, and your life is stuck there.”
About “Young in Baltimore”, Benjamin told me “While writing the song, I was thinking about the pressure to conform that we all go through, and how some of us enter into situations, relationships – not out of passion, but out of the illusion that we have no choice. I had moved to a new city, I was working a job I hated. I kept asking myself questions like ‘Have I made the right decision? Should I be doing this? Was it better before, when I was younger?’ I was also obsessed with Robert Frank’s photo-book ‘The Americans’, thinking about the people in those pictures, imagining their lives. I kept coming back to this image of a woman on a train. All of my regret, reluctancy and nostalgia collided with this image. It became a prism out of which another formed; somebody considering the end of a marriage. Only later did I realise it was a symbol of my life at that moment.
As for the bright-sounding music, it’s there to counteract the story. I was living in Glasgow at the time, too. It rains a lot there, so it was also in defiance of that. A rainy place needs sunny music.”